Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel -- a former enlisted man, from modest circumstances -- said on Tuesday that he'd give up a portion of his $200,000 salary in solidarity with civilian Defense Department employees facing furloughs. (Hagel was simply following Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who announced his intention to forgo some of his salary a month ago.) Giving up 14 days' worth of salary, for Hagel, will require first getting paid, and then writing a check to the Treasury.
This prompted President Obama to announce that he, too, would call attention to the widespread deprivation and needless immiseration Congress has foisted upon the nation by formally returning 5 percent of his salary to the Treasury as well. Five percent of his $400,000 annual salary. That he doesn't need because he's rich.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and Iraq War veteran, upped the stakes by announcing that she had already written a $1,218 check to the Treasury , representing a whopping 8.4 percent of one month of her congressional salary. Duckworth, I am pretty sure, is not nearly as rich as President Obama or Secretary Hagel, but on $174,000 a year, not counting tax deductible expenses, $1,218 shouldn't hurt too much (she says she'll do a check each month).
Give back your salaries, fine, whatever. Every politician in Washington should feel free to one-up one another in terms of salary-refusing, until none of them are paid anything, which should please most Americans. (Though maybe all that money members of the administration are giving back should just be donated to members of Congress who might be inclined to vote to lift the sequestration.) If they want to do that, that is their prerogative. But it really straddles the line between silly and offensive grandstanding. Given that this entire package of cuts was essentially a game of Russian Roulette in which the Washington political class pointed the pistol at most of the rest of the country and then decided to see what would happen if they just decided to pull the trigger, this seems like a particularly tone-deaf way of claiming awareness of everyone else's pain.
It reminds me, sort of, of the House Republican and No Labels-supported "no budget, no pay" movement, which similarly missed the point. None of these people rely on their paychecks to make the rent or feed a family or pay down crushing debt. The Senate is full of millionaires; the House only looks middle-class in comparison. Instead of calling attention to the real effects of a pointless and intentionally destructive spending cut, comfortable people voluntarily "giving up" a pittance of their salaries only distracts.
These are cuts that could kill some cancer patients. They have 40-year-olds seeking to go back to war for the pay raise. The cuts will (again, entirely pointlessly) badly disrupt scientific and medical research. Anti-poverty programs across the country face cuts. People have and will continue to lose jobs without the possibility of seeking lucrative think tank, lobbying firm or cable news work instead.
Making a big show of mailing back a small portion of your salary just feeds the notion, common in the political press, that these cuts are primarily a partisan argument about White House tours. Hardship felt by actual poor and middle-class people is usually an entirely abstract notion in Washington and in much of the press. Pretending to feel the same hardship doesn't help.
Blinkered bubble mentality aside, it's also weird politics. If you are trying to convince Republicans to reverse savage government spending cuts that they have all decided that they are fine with, and you are also someone Republicans hate, cutting your own salary seems like an odd negotiating strategy.